KHARKIV, Ukraine – Wooden coffins were being brought out on the tarmac of a Ukrainian airport as the first plane carrying corpses recovered from the crash site of Malaysian flight MH17 readied to leave for the Netherlands on Wednesday.
Grieving families and Dutch royals are due to receive the bodies as flags fly at half mast on a day of mourning across the nation, which lost 193 citizens in the flight that was allegedly blown out of the sky by a missile, turning civilians from a dozen nations into casualties of a remote conflict raging in eastern Ukraine.
US officials said the Kuala Lumpur-bound plane from Amsterdam was mistakenly shot down by pro-Russian separatists as investigators hope two black boxes, which will be sent to Britain for analysis, would help to shed light on the disaster that killed all 298 on board.
The recovery of the crucial flight recorders and the victims' remains came after days of bitter wrangling with pro-Russian separatists controlling the crash site, who finally released them under intense international pressure. But officials say many remains were still on the sprawling crash site in rebel-held territory, decomposing under the summer heat.
Evidence gathered by US intelligence officials suggests pro-Russian separatists launched the SA-11 surface-to-air missile that blew up the Malaysia Airlines flight on Thursday, but it remains unclear who pulled the trigger and why. "The most plausible explanation... was that it was a mistake," and that the missile was fired by an ill-trained crew using a system that requires some skill and training, said a senior intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"We've all seen mistakes in the past," the official told reporters, in reference to a Korean airliner downed by a Soviet fighter jet in 1983, and an Iranian passenger plane shot down by US naval forces in 1988. Russia, which US officials accuse of backing the separatists by providing them with military hardware and training, has faced a hail of international condemnation over the accident.
The crash has spurred an intense propaganda war, with both Ukraine and Russia trading blame, ratcheting up tensions after months of crisis sparked when Kiev turned its back on its former Soviet master in favour of stronger European ties. Russia denies supporting the rebels who have declared independence in parts of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine and also says it did not supply the missile system allegedly used to bring down MH17.
US intelligence officials said Russian claims the Ukrainian government had shot down the plane were not plausible noting that the territory was clearly under rebel control. A senior security official in Kiev claimed that Russia had massed over 40,000 soldiers along its border over the past week. A truce has been declared by rival sides around the crash impact site, but international investigators still face massive obstacles.
Dutch officials confirmed receipt of only 200 of the 298 victims' bodies. International monitors said more remains were left in the vast crash site, littered with poignant fragments from hundreds of destroyed lives. "There were human remains that had not been picked up," said Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for European security body OSCE's mission to Ukraine after visiting the scene.
Just beyond the crash site, fighting raged on as government troops pushed on with an offensive to wrest control of east Ukraine's industrial heartland from the pro-Moscow separatists. Local authorities in the besieged city of Lugansk reported Wednesday three civilians killed and 10 injured in the last 24 hours. Around 1,000 people have been killed in the 15-week conflict, if the victims of the plane crash were included in the toll.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday pledged to "do everything" to influence the separatists and ensure a full probe into the crash. At the same time, he put the ball back in Kiev's court, saying that the Ukrainian military offensive in the east was posing a danger to international investigators there. "We are asked to exert influence on the militants of the south-east (of Ukraine). Of course we will do everything in our power.
"However this would be absolutely inadequate" given fresh attacks by Ukrainian troops, he said. Putin is staring down fresh European sanctions just a week after the latest set was unveiled over its role in the Ukraine crisis, which has chilled East-West tensions to the lowest point in years. The emerging giant is widely expected to sink into recession this year, hit by massive capital outflows over the Ukraine crisis.
But more pain could still come as Britain is pushing for an arms embargo. Britain's stance is, however, putting neighbour France in an awkward position, as Paris is keen to maintain its 1.2 billion euro ($1.6 billion) warship deal with Russia. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Britain to first put its house in order, pointing out that London was full of Russian oligarchs.
Washington however told France that the delivery of Mistral-class warships to Russia would be completely inappropriate.